Those of you from the first draft will recognize this chapter… but I've edited it and changed a few things. Nothing large, though. Enjoy!

TWO

"Vorchay! How do you do?"

The soldier turned her head, making her neck crack, to see over her shoulder. "King Levanor! How do you do?" she greeted as she rubbed her neck with a slight wince.

"What's wrong?" the man asked, quickening his horse to come abreast of hers. The beast's huge hooves stamped holes in the snow.

"I'm afraid I'm frozen into my armor, milord," she said mildly. "When I turned, it broke the layer of ice I like to wear for modesty's sake."

He laughed. "King Cerventia is a lucky man to have a bodyguard with both beauty and humor. I could use a few like you. And a Snow-Speaker, no less! You're very valuable indeed," he said, referring to her small magic with snow.

"My beauty, magic and humor come second to my sword, milord." She glanced quickly up ahead in the ranks to where her King rode in a circle of her fellow Valor Guard. "Because the King has beauties and jesters in many, his trusted swords are few."

"Indeed they are," he said, and adjusted himself. "So how're you looking forward to this battle, eh?" His grin was malicious.

Vorchay laughed as she had for Behrencrsn the day before. "You easterners sure are hungry for blood, aren't you? Personally, I like the battlefield just where it is- far away from me."

"We haven't had a nice war in two hundred years. Of course we want one. And that's a silly way to look at war," he informed her bluntly. "Warfare is the ultimate test of a King's mettle. You should be glad your –shall we call him your charge?" He chuckled at his own joke, "You should be glad your charge is riding into battle."

She winced.

"Ice break again?" he asked mildly.

She sighed.

He laughed again, then gave her a slap on the back, his gauntlet clanging loudly on her armor. "Well enjoy yourself, Vorchay! I'm sure you'll make your family groan with pride in their graves." And with that, he urged his horse forward to join King Cerventia, his bodyguards flowing around her and past her as they followed. Vorchay's smile fell off as he left.

She scowled. "How'd he know they were dead?" she muttered to herself, tugging on a corner of her cloak out of habit.

"All the courts know," a voice said smoothly, "of the young orphan woman who became a part of the King's Valor Guard."

Vorchay turned her head and saw Lord Savilcrsn riding next to her. She unconsciously straightened in her saddle. The Lord Savilcrsn had been the first woman to become a political power, and ever since she had shown that women could be just as ruthless in battle as any man could, the King had allowed people like Vorchay into the regular army. Because of the older woman's heroic reputation, political influence, and strong sword arm, her armor was second only to the King. It was thick and elaborately gilded with gold, lifted forward in the chest more than a man's to cover a woman's weakness. Her helm was plumed with gold feathers and her sword was the finest made, tapping quietly against her thigh's cuirass as the monstrous, equally armored horse paced beneath her, its flesh quivering with strength. She was the legend of Thalorsn, the kingdom of King Cerventia, and it had been her passing through Vorchay's town that had sparked Vorchay's feet to run away from home and join the army.

"Milord," Vorchay said with a respectful bob of her head.

"Everyone knows," she went on, as if Vorchay hadn't spoken, "of how you trained for the honor of your family, only to return and find them murdered by raiders. And that from then on, you vowed to fight not for their honor, but for your own, when everyone expected you to fight for the honor of your dead family. And you went on to become one of the best swordsmen in all of Maelurphon."

Vorchay was silent, not sure how to reply. Though Savil was an inspiration and a legend, Vorchay was puzzled by her. The few times they had met, Savil was always reserved, silent, and said but a few words. Nor did she seem to like Vorchay much, for some reason the young woman had yet to fathom. With no other way to reply, she inclined her head again. "Thank you for the compliment."

"It's not one. It's a fact," she said. She turned icy blue eyes to the young woman. "Fight well for your King in this battle, Vorchayrsn Deu Giras. If you do not, he will surely fall." Her voice was quiet.

Vorchay felt a sudden leaden weight fall into her stomach, and decided it tasted like doom. She swallowed and nodded. "Yes, milord. I will."

The woman sought something in Vorchay's gray eyes for a moment, then grunted and moved forward to join the King, leaving Vorchay to her thoughts.

She lifted her eyes to the sky, shading them with a gauntleted hand. The sun was six handsbreath from the horizon. They would reach the battleground soon. Once there, they would make camp and wait for morning, whereupon their enemy, King Jilakor, would meet them in battle.

Shivers ran up her back at that thought. She let her hand and gaze fall, quickly pushing it aside.

Thoughts of battle would come soon enough. She didn't want to agonize over it now. Quickly, before her thoughts became morbid, she went to seek out wine and bread.

O0O

Her eyes opened as she felt the waking of her King, and she was immediately awake, her hand on her knife. "Milord?" she murmured quietly.

The King slid from under his furs, smiling slightly as he saw her. "I sometimes wonder if my wife is as sensitive to my waking as you are, Vorchay," he said with amusement.

"Most likely. Where are you going?" She pushed away her sleeping furs, winced slightly at the biting cold that met her, and stood, rolling her shoulders as she glanced around the large tent out of habit for anyone out of place. Other Valor Guard slept around their King, and there were two posted at the door. She had taken her shift at the door the evening prior.

"I'm just going to go walk the troops," he said as he dressed. He waved her back to her furs. "I'll take the door guard with me, so you can get back to bed."

"I couldn't sleep if I tried," she said honestly, coming forward to help him put on his armor. She had only slept a few hours, and fitfully at that, her dreams full of blood. "And the fastening goes like this," she said, adjusting the staple-and-pin fastening for his vambrace guard. Getting on her knees, she adjusted the cuisse on his left thigh and the poleyn over his knee. She looked up as she heard him chuckle.

"When I was a young man, I dreamed that a young woman would be adjusting my doublet, not my armor," he said, his eyes twinkling below his graying brows. "Ah, how the times change."

She returned the smile. "All times must change, lest we rot in the present," she said, quoting her old teacher. "And besides, I don't know much about doublets," she added with a slight, forced smile. She got back to her feet.

"Then I'll leave that to my wife." He gave her a nod, then left, and she watched him go through the door, making sure the door guards seemed awake enough to be on their guard. They were. Satisfied, she let the door fall back into place, then turned to dress.

She stripped off her sleeping clothes as she went to her armor, and stuffed them in a saddlebag. First came her smallclothes and a special corset to keep down her breasts. Then came two layers of black hose beneath an ankle-length robe that was split up the middle for riding, and a second robe, going to her knees, that was embroidered with silk thread in the curling black designs that was common throughout the island of Maelurphon. A cuirass of thick steel was buckled over her chest, and long tassets clanged against steel cuisses that were muffled beneath the second robe. Greaves strapped around her calves and poleyns around her knees.

Straightening, she pulled on her vambraces and vambrace guards to protect her arms. At last came a thick cloak of black- the uniform color for all the clothing of those of the Valor Guard, and then large, lamed pauldrons buckled over it to the armor beneath through special holes in the cloak. The pauldron on her shield arm was larger, and the steel thicker. A stopping rib rose sharply to protect her neck, spiked elegantly. All of the armor was polished black, graceful flutes tracing in ancient designs over the metal. They gleamed with honor.

"You don't need to get in full armor until the battle, Vorchay," Geavilcrsn said as he awakened to the quiet clang of her armor. He was sitting up under his furs, giving her an amused look.

"I feel like I need it," she said as she braided her long, dark, warrior's hair. She let it fall out from beneath her helmet as she settled the steel over her head. "Morning of the first battle and all."

"Nervous?" Geavilrsn asked.

"Me? Nervous? Pah. I'm never nervous. I clad myself in full armor every morning. Don't you?"

He laughed.

Vorchay took her swords and fastened their scabbards onto her belt. She slid a set of throwing knives at the small of her back, then a curved dagger at her other hip. She picked up the case with her mare's armor in it and looked to him. "Well, I'll be seeing you soon. When is the enemy due to get here?"

"First light," he said as the others awakened. He rose to put on his own attire. "Good luck, Vorchay," he said seriously.

"I hope I won't need it," she replied. "And may the same luck be with you." Pushing aside the tent door, she stepped out into the cold.

The darkness before morning was filled with tension as soldiers awoke silently to prepare. Everything, in fact, was carried out with silence. The clear air hovering over the new snow that had fallen during the night carried sound all too easily, and they didn't want their enemy to be aware of their presence.

She went around the tent to where her gray mare was picketed under a copse of trees. Avin's hooves stomped impatiently in the thick snow, her intelligent brown eyes rolling with eagerness to end the tension she felt in the air. She lipped Vorchay's gauntleted hand as the Valor Guard murmured compliments and patted her thick neck, running her fingers through the short, stubbly mane. Her tail was cut only long enough to cover her back end for a bit of extra warmth in the eternal snows of Maelurphon.

"We're going into battle," Vorchay told her seriously as she opened her pack and began pulling out the animal's armor. "So you need to be on your best behavior. Understood? This isn't just some game. A mistake could get you killed." Her voice shook slightly and she took a deep breath to quell it.

The mare snorted a cloud of warm air at her, as if to point out that she, unlike Vorchay, had been to battle before. The young woman sighed, knowing she only spoke to reassure herself. She began fastening on the steel, double-checking every buckle before moving on. At last, she put on the large war-saddle, buckling its straps around Avin's breast, stomach, and looping one of them around her tail. It would keep Vorchay in place, even with all her armor's weight.

When she was finished, she mounted, and Avin immediately spun on her hind legs, prancing and ready for battle. Vorchay grunted a command, and the mare stood still. Even so, her horseflesh still quivered with anticipation.

Is everyone eager for battle except me? She wondered this as she moved Avin forward into the rest of the camp. Infantry soldiers gave her plenty of space as she rode, and she remembered with a slight smile how she used to avoid the mysterious Valor Guardsmen the same way. But now she knew –yes, all too well- that Valor Guardsmen were just as flawed as normal infantry soldiers.

She stopped in front of King Levanor's tent. The large, burly man was already in armor. "Good morning, milord," she said with a slight bow from her saddle.

"Ah, Vorchay, good to see you're up. Did you sleep at all?" he asked with a grin.

She forced a smile. "Some," she admitted.

"Eat anything?" he pressed.

"I'm afraid my stomach would repel anything I gave it," she said with humor as forced as her smile. "It's tied in an overlarge knot at the moment." That much was true.

"That'll do you no good. You need your strength." He passed her the plate of food that his guard offered him. "I'll get some more, you eat that."

She took it with a laugh. "Ah, another father! I don't know how many I have by now. Thank you." She took off her helmet and began eating the slab of meat, bread, and fruit. "Good luck to you," she said with a nod, then urged Avin onwards with her legs. The Valor Guardsmen, unlike the normal cavalry, used no reins. No bit had ever marked Avin's mouth. When the people of Maelurphon had first tamed the huge beasts, they had refused bit, and only those who were raised with humans would wear them. The wild-born ones, like Avin and all the horses of the Guardsmen, would rather die than wear a bridle.

She saw her King ahead, talking quietly with a soldier. She rode up to him, chewing on dried fruit even though her stomach loudly protested. "Take a break," she told one of the men on guard duty. He gave her a nod and turned away gratefully. She finished her food, passed the plate to a passing servantman, then settled her helmet back on her head.

Cerventia finished his conversation, then sighed and looked to the horizon, where the first touches of sunlight were showing. "Find the Commander," he told the other guard. "Tell him it's time." The Valor Guard nodded and left quickly.

Vorchay watched the King's face as he turned to his inner thoughts. She wondered what he was thinking of. What did a King wonder, just a few handsbreadth from battle?

Hell, what did she wonder?

She shifted in her saddle, making her armor clink quietly. She wasn't sure. Her mind was blank. Drifting from thought to thought, never settling on one. She wanted it to stay that way. If it stayed on one, she might scream and run away.

Lord Savilcrsn stepped from her tent in full armor, a maroon cloak fastened under the pauldrons of her armor. "King Cerventia," she greeted as a boy brought her the black warhorse she rode, already in full armor like her. "Do we ride to the valley?" She mounted smoothly, adjusting her swords.

"Yes," he said with a nod. Vorchay glanced over her shoulder as she heard the clink of armor, and she saw the rest of the Valor Guard riding up, decked in armor identical to hers. They formed a shield around their King without a word, and Vorchay settled into her position at the back left.

Her heart began to pound as they started forward for the battlefield.

The came to the crest of a hill that sloped down into a deep valley and stopped. Gleaming soldiers drew up behind them, nearly two hundred in number. The island of Maelurphon was sparsely populated, and so their war was carried out in numbers never more than four hundred. If they did otherwise, there would be not man, woman, or child left to plow the snowy lands. But to make up for it, each soldier was trained with even more care, since every life was important. Their swordswork, archery, hand-to-hand combat skills, and horsemanship were each honed through years of individual training that had been taking place since childhood.

Sweat dripped down her forehead despite the cold. She had been training for this all her life. She would not fail now. She could not fail now.

The sun lifted beyond the mountains, bathing all in light, and the glare off the snow was blinding. She lifted the silk collar of her robe and tucked it under her helmet and around her face, just below her gray eyes. Others did the same.

They waited for half a handsbreadth before they heard the unmistakable sound of soldiers coming from the other side of the valley. Vorchay paled as she saw their number. There were at least three hundred cavalry.

"Where did they get so many men?" she murmured.

"Jilakor recruited every able man of his kingdom," Cerventia replied. "But the quality of each of them is poor. We will win."

Vorchay had her doubts as she watched the enemy get into position just out of bowshot. Quality was all fine and good, but even the best of soldiers could be taken down if enough poor enemies attacked at once.

Yet she kept her mouth shut. He was the King- surely he already knew that.

A pause stretched between the two armies as each of them measured up the other. Vorchay saw that King Jilakor rode in front, his banner fastened onto the back of his saddle. His armor was green, gilded with gold, and his plume was long.

Vorchay swallowed, suppressing a wild urge to throw Avin forward and charge. She wanted it to start soon, so that it could end soon. She decided, as icy fear slid down the back of her throat, that she did not like battle. Some warriors were born to it; she was not.

Avin stomped and snorted loudly, pawing at the snow. The warhorse of Savilcrsn was perfectly still, not a single hair quivering. The woman was the same, her blue eyes fixed on the enemy without fear.

A strange thought occurred to her as she sat mounted there, her body tense and ready to pounce forward.

What would her dead father see? He had told her on many occasions that she was not made for war. That she didn't have the stomach for it. That she was better off staying home. Would he see a fearless Valor Guardsman, bedecked in the finest armor, a heavy velvet cloak spreading proudly from squared shoulders and storm-gray eyes narrowed at the enemy? Or would he see a woman in man's armor, trying to mimic the honor and courage of those around her?

She would never know.

Numbly, she followed the others as they drew their swords, and the blade felt clumsy in her hand.

The enemy seemed to draw together for a moment, then surged forward, their warcries shivering in her blood. As they drew closer, the Thalorsn archers let a volley go, and enemy men collapsed under the rain of arrows, pulled under the tide of thundering hooves pounding through snow.

Savilcrsn lifted her sword to the sky. "For King Cerventia!" she bellowed, then charged forward. They followed the hero, the cavalry pounding and the infantry following their wake.

Vorchay kept her side of the King's shield as she rode forward, and the cries around her rose like a storm to join the sound of armor and the rising pitch of tension. Her voice did not join them. There was a lump so large in her throat she could barely breathe.

Fear was thick. All thought was gone. Now there was only kill or be killed.

The pitch stretched and finally snapped as the two forces collided with a great clang of steel on steel that rang through her head like some ungodly bell. It was not unfamiliar. The sound of steel had accompanied her from the start of her training, and it was no stranger now.

But the screams were.

The wails of the dying, the feel of flesh giving way before a sharpened blade, and the choking gurgles of those to be dead was not familiar. It was as if she had been thrown into the bowels of hell and nothing would ever be right again.

All the stories of disconnection that she had heard were lies. She was connected with herself- more connected than ever. No battle awareness flooded her senses; nothing to block the brunt of the experience. There was rather a terror that quickened her reflexes and increased her strength. All of the training she had received was now put to the test as her muscles remembered every drill that every teacher had put her through.

She turned in time to catch a mace on her sword, and Avin turned beneath her, savagely kicking the man's horse. He fell back, and she yanked her blade from contact with his mace and urged Avin forward, running him through. His eyes widened as blood dribbled from his mouth, and she yanked her blade free of his ribcage, cringing from his staring eyes. Flecks of bone came with it.

Vorchay swallowed her bile. Warriors did not vomit during battle. Warriors did not want to turn and run. She began to murmur this to herself, forcing herself to not be sick or flee.

She shoved the man aside as Avin moved back to take her place as the King's shield, and she spared a glance to see how they fared. Two Guardsmen had already fallen, and the King was fighting fiercely, Savilcrsn at his side.

She cried out in pain as a blade drew blood from her arm, and she whirled, her sword snaking out. He blocked it, growling with fierce eyes, and she attacked viciously, wanting him to die so that he wouldn't kill her.

Don't kill me, she thought desperately. Please, don't kill me...!
"Warriors don't flee," she heard a hoarse voice gasp under the hollow hell of war. "Warriors don't flee...!" It took a moment to recognize her own small, terrified voice.

Her blade slithered through his throat, and she twisted it, cutting off his head. His horse danced aside as blood burst over Vorchay, bathing her in the stink of death. She spit out the blood that fell in her gasping mouth, turning to face another enemy.

Her sword moved, methodically cutting down those around her. She would not let them kill her. She would not die this day. She tried to fill herself with determination, but it wavered like a candle in the wind.

"You're a natural!" Behrencrsn said with a grin as they both fell back to the shield around their King. "I can see why they had you join us so young."

Thankfully, she didn't have to reply, as the enemies returned and their mouths were put to better use gasping for breath to ward off exhaustion.

The sun drew high above them, and more Guardsmen fell. Vorchay drew closer to the King. "Sir, you need to fall back!" she called over the din of battle. "Too many Guardsmen have fallen!" She hoped that if he fell back, she could follow him. Above everything, she wanted to get out of this hell. She grunted as a shield tried to push her from her saddle, and she lashed out with her dagger, stabbing him in the head. As she yanked the blade free of his skull, blood flew over her. She felt as if she was drowning.

"No, Vorchay! Victory is close at hand!" the King laughed. And indeed it was. They were fighting back the enemy, and the banner of Jilakor drew closer.

The image of Cerventia stayed in her memory. The King on his foaming horse, his blade lifted high, his armor reflecting the noon sun, surrounded by enemies, laughing and calling to victory.

Desperately she wondered why she couldn't have been born a King. Then, perhaps, she could have the courage of one, like him.

It was her last wish not washed in regret.

Suddenly, the shield broke.

A sudden wave of enemies charged down three Guardsmen at once, riding them down into the muck of the field. Two other Guardsmen jumped to stop the wave, but they were cut down as their mounts lost footing on the slippery corpses.

Everything froze.

For one terrifying instant, she had a glimpse of truth. If she jumped in now, the King would be saved, at the expense of her life.

And if she did not, she would survive, but the King would die.

She shut her eyes tightly, blood and muck running down her cheeks, then opened them wide, the pupils contracted, and everything became her choice.

With a cry of shame, she fell back, and watched as the wave washed up to the King and surrounded him, pulling him down with flashing blades to hell.

No! Her mind cried out in horror at what she'd done, and she leapt forward, attempting to rectify her moment of cowardice even though her gut told her it was far, far too late. Heads flew at her sword and she battled fiercely to get to the King, but when she had tossed away the last enemy as a corpse, she found the King trampled and long past dead, trodden into the slush of snow and blood. He lay like a broken doll in the muck, his eyes staring and his brains scattered. All around him was red.

Self-hatred filled her heart and she screamed, tears trailing through the blood on her cheeks. She lifted her gray eyes, searching for something she didn't know, desperate...

Savilcrsn's icy blue eyes cut into her.

For a moment they stood facing each other over the dead body of the King, untouched by enemies but awash in tension. Thalorsn soldiers surged forward for their fallen King, defeating the enemy. They swelled around the two soldiers. They were, to Vorchay, in a different world.

"I saw you."

Vorchay could not even wince, but rather stare, stunned, as if she had been struck with a mallet. A woman staring out from man's armor.

Savilcrsn's eyes flashed with rage and she leapt her huge horse over the King's body. Avin pranced back, snorting, as Savilcrsn circled Vorchay. "You're a Valor Guard, a sworn warrior to the King," she snapped, her words like a whip in Vorchay's mind. The snorting and labored breath of her mount was like a slavering demon, its eyes bright beneath its thick fur. "When you were sworn into the King's service, you gave your oath to protect him at any cost. Any cost! And yet you ride into battle like a scared child and you break it!" Her blue eyes were accusing, hating. She leapt forward, and her sword clashed with Vorchay's as she brought it up. No. Her arm brought itself up. All the strength seemed to have run out of her.

"You are nothing but an embarrassment," Savilcrsn snarled, forcing Vorchay back with furious blows. "You should never have left your silly home!"

Vorchay grunted and danced away, shoving the woman's blade aside. Her whole body trembled with exhaustion. She struggled for breath and yanked the silk from her face.

Around them, enemies swirled to meet allies, and the foes were battled off. But that war no longer mattered. Nothing mattered. Nothing.

"Anything to say for yourself?" the woman demanded. "Or will you just remain silent and let your honor crumble around you?" Hatred dripped like poison from her lips. "I tried to warn the King. When I first saw you, I knew that you were nothing compared to what a real warrior was. That you would not pull through for him, when the moment was direst. But he believed in you. I let it go." Her lips twisted in a sneer. "I was fool enough to hope, along with the King, that perhaps, because you were a woman, you might change.

"I was wrong. A coward born is a coward for life."

Victory came to the Thalorsn men around them, but the surge of delight at it was beyond either of them. There was no victory now for Vorchay. Savilcrsn would kill her.

Vorchay's hand went to the knives at her back. "You're right," she said softly, panic creating a strange calm in her mind. She knew what she had to do, if she didn't want to be slaughtered by Savil's angry sword. And if she didn't want to die for her King, then she certainly didn't want to die for her honor.

Her hand snapped out, and the woman ducked, but Vorchay hadn't aimed for her. Savilcrsn's horse fell with a scream, blood falling from its neck, and it crashed to the ground, convulsing. Savilcrsn clattered away to the side, unable to get up for the weight of her armor.

"You would kill me like this?" the woman asked, almost amused, her voice tight as she looked up like the King had from the red muck of the field.

"No," Vorchay replied quietly, tears still streaking her cheeks. "But I would leave you like this."

With that, she threw her sword into the muck at the woman's feet, turned Avin to the mountains, and put her heels to the mare's flanks, the tides of battle parting before her.